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Billys buddy: Young Jewish actor tapped for role in Billy Elliot the Musical

It’s 30 minutes before the curtain goes up on “Billy Elliot the Musical.” Jacob Zelonky sits in a quiet corner backstage, eyes closed, headphones on, mind focused.

The actor prepares.

Jacob, 12, plays Michael, the cheerful, confident friend of Billy, title character in the Tony Award–winning musical set in northern England’s coal country.

Off stage, he’s a cheerful, confident Jewish kid who likes Harry Potter books, bungee jumping and roller coasters.

He also likes singing Yiddish songs for Jewish seniors — which he’ll likely do in San Francisco over the next two months — and he’s looking forward to his bar mitzvah in November.

But until that day, he’s got a show to do (which means he practices his Torah portion using his iPod and Skype).

Based on the hit British film from 2005, “Billy Elliot the Musical” makes its West Coast premiere on Monday, June 27, at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre. The production is scheduled to run through Sept. 17.

Jacob, along with 20 other kids in the cast, has been on the road for nearly a year — four cities in 2010 and eight more so far in 2011 — with the show’s touring company. He rotates his part with one other actor, which actually gets him more stage time than any of the kids playing Billy (there are five).

Jacob isn’t the only Jewish child actor in the show, and last December the Jewish cast members lit Chanukah candles together.

But whenever it’s Jacob’s night to perform — as it is scheduled to be on opening night at the Orpheum — all he has to do is shine.

“I feel I can really connect with the audience,” Jacob says of his part, which includes the song “Expressing Yourself,” one of the musical’s showstoppers. “I love what I’m doing.”

Jacob Zelonky poses in front of a Seattle theater.

Jacob, who has two older siblings (Zoe and Elijah) spent his early childhood years in the Los Angeles County city of Stevenson Ranch, not far from Magic Mountain. He and his family now live in Memphis, Tenn., where his mom is a synagogue executive.

All the while, Jacob has loved singing and acting. Not only is he a veteran of professional and community theater musicals, but his father is a professional Jewish camp song leader who has put out four kids CDs. Robb Zelonky (or Robbo, as he goes by as a performer) also does stage shows for kids, which he has performed at a few Bay Area locations in the past.

Jacob thus grew up with Jewish music, both at camps, such as JCA Shalom in Malibu (where his father serves as song leader), and at his synagogues in both Southern California and now in Tennessee.

“Billy Elliot” is Jacob’s biggest break so far. The 2005 show, which features songs by Elton John, proved a blockbuster in London and New York, picking up multiple Tony and Drama Desk Awards, including Best Musical of 2009.

It tells the story of a boy growing up in northeastern England during the mid-1980s. Billy Elliot wants to study dance, and nothing, not even his disapproving mineworker father, will stop him.

Billy’s best friend, Michael (played by Jacob), encourages Billy to follow his dream, even as Michael dresses up in his mother’s frocks to express himself.

Though most of the attention falls on the Billy role, Jacob has received some compelling reviews himself, such as “Jacob Zelonky is thoroughly amusing as Billy’s offbeat and scrappy pal” in one publication, and “sure to be an audience favorite is Jacob Zelonky” in another.

Jbilly elliot2Lex Ishimoto as Billy Elliot (left) spars with Jacob as Michael. photo/michael brosilow

Jacob won the role of Michael based on a string of New York auditions last year. There were, however, a few tools missing from his performing bag of tricks: To land the part, he had to learn to ride a bike and he had to learn to tap dance like a pro.

“They got me a tap coach in Memphis,” Jacob says. “She coached me five days a week. I had to learn 13 years worth of tap dancing in a few months.”

He also had to master the tricky accent common to northern England’s coal country. The show’s producers demanded that the actors sound like authentic Durham County denizens.

“It took a while to learn,” Jacob says. “We had dialect coaches who sat with us and went  through every line, and taught us how to say things correctly.”

And finally, Jacob had to learn a little something about donning women’s clothing. “It was little complicated at first,” he laughs. “I didn’t know if I should step into the dress or put it over my head.”

Jacob’s work ethic has impressed the adults around him.

“He’s a great kid,” says casting director Nora Brennan, who found Jacob and put him the show. “He’s very open. I remember from his audition he had no fear, and that’s a huge part of playing Michael. The main thing we look for are actors who have a natural sense of humor, not too show-bizzy and a strong singing voice.”

Jacob has always possessed a good voice, starting with his first musical role at age 3 — as a kid in the chorus of “Fiddler on the Roof.”

“He loved everything about it,” remembers his mother, Barb Gelb, who serves as director of education at Temple Israel in Memphis. “The people, the part, sitting backstage. So whenever opportunities came to do community theater, he auditioned.”

Even as a toddler, Jacob took to musicals. His mother remembers a cross-country drive, during which little Jacob demanded his parents play the “Bye Bye Birdie” CD over and over. He even had a “Bye Bye Birdie”–themed birthday party when he turned 4.

Jacob (right) was in his first musical, “Fiddler on the Roof,” at age 3.

Though he never took an acting or singing lesson, Jacob began landing roles in show after show — mostly amateur and some professional.

Those included “Seussical,” “Narnia” and “A Christmas Carol,” in which he played Tiny Tim.

Local theater professionals noticed him and referred him to a Disney casting director looking to cast roles in the touring company productions of “Mary Poppins” and “Little Mermaid.” Jacob auditioned and did not make the cut, but he was called back for “Billy Elliot.”

“He loves to perform,” his mother says. “He is naturally engaging on a stage. He’s not egotistical, and he wants you to laugh and have a good time.”

Jacob has taken his talents to the bimah as well. He has starred in a few Purimspiels at his Memphis synagogue, having once played Haman as Oscar the Grouch in a Sesame Street–themed spiel.

Earlier this year, while on the road with the show, Jacob single-handedly wrote the Purimshpiel, giving it a Harry Potter theme (Voldemort as Haman).

Leading an actor’s life hasn’t stopped him from maintaining the Jewish values he grew up with.

For his upcoming bar mitzvah, Jacob must complete a mitzvah project. He chose to visit Jewish assisted-living and nursing homes in every city the company plays, and perform on his days off.

His father, who sings and plays guitar, usually accompanies Jacob on those musical excursions. They perform everything from folk classics such as “This Land is Your Land” to Yiddish lullabies. Says Jacob of one such visit, “One man I played for said I restored his youth.”

At the time of his bar mitzvah this November, Jacob will still be on the road with “Billy Elliot.” So he’ll chant Torah in St. Louis, about 280 miles from his Memphis home. His family and friends, including his “Billy Elliot” family, will be in attendance.

The first time she attended “Billy Elliot” with her son on stage, Barb Gelb was in shock.

“I was crying,” she says. “It blew me away. When I saw him tap dancing, holding the audience’s attention, I went nuts. I couldn’t believe it was him. My other kids were crying when they saw him.”

She says she and Jacob’s father (the two are divorced) work hard to make sure their son has as normal a life as possible. Neither fits the mold of the stereotypical stage parent, preferring to let Jacob decide how much he wants to take on as a performer.

“I just want him to be happy and enjoy what he’s doing,” Gelb says. “His dad and I have a way of making him know that this is something we support. We don’t push him. We’re overwhelmed with happiness that he’s allowed to do something he loves.”

Given its success, the “Billy Elliot” tour may last through all of 2012; after it leaves San Francisco, it is scheduled for 18 more cities through Sept. 2, 2012.

Jacob intends to see it through. After that, he says, he wants to keep the momentum and join another show.

Says Jacob, “I like making people happy.”

“Billy Elliot the Musical” runs June 27 through Sept. 17 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., S.F. Tickets or information: (888) 746-1799 or www.shnsf.com.

photo composite:  cathleen maclearie

photos: michael brosilow

Jacob Zelonky (foreground), a Jewish child actor from Tennessee, plays the title character’s best friend, Michael, in the touring production of “Billy Elliot the Musical,” which opens in San Francisco on Monday, June 27.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.